In the world of mechanical watch movements, the high-frequency movement is somewhat of an oddity. This kind of movement that beats with even greater urgency and violence than a regular watch’s innards offers the potential for greater accuracy, stability and more precise chronometry. Yet, over the years, the brands that make and use high frequency movements have dropped precipitously. Once upon a time, there were around one dozen prominent watchmakers—including names such as Longines, Eberhard, Seiko and Favre Leuba—which made watches that beat five times per second or more, while normal watches staggered along at a mere four.
That might seem like a minor difference, a rounding off error even. But to the movement of a watch, it makes a world of a difference. Traditional watches vibrate around 28,000 times every hour. These vibrations are then translated, through a system of gears and tiny regulators, into the time-keeping motion you see on the face of the watch. High-frequency watches vibrate 36,000 times a second or even more. This means that springs, gears and oscillating parts travel even faster.
High-frequency performers: Zenith’s El Primero Stratos Flyback
But this also means that each time interval in a high-frequency watch is made of several more tiny vibrations. Minor errors in the odd vibration of such a mechanism correspondingly lead to a much smaller error in time-keeping. In other words, the occasional missed beat in 36,000 have a lower impact on accuracy than the same error in 28,000 vibrations. By extension, chronographs built on high-frequency movements have greater accuracy as well.
Watch brands spend millions researching springs, mechanisms, bearings and alloys that can reduce friction, eliminate external conditions and increase watch accuracy. The expensive tourbillon device was itself an invention meant to reduce gravitational inaccuracies. Then why don’t more watches have high-frequency movements in them?
After a frenzy of adoption in the late 1960s, the high-frequency movement quickly fell out of favour arguably because of a number of factors including greater cost, the arrival of quartz movements that devastated the mechanical business, and the availability of mass-produced off-the-shelf movements that could be upgraded to high-frequencies through kits. Whatever be the exact reason, by the earlier part of this century, the high-frequency movement had all but fallen out of favour.
Until now. This year at BaselWorld, three superb high-frequency watches from two brands perhaps herald the return of this technology.
El Primero 1/10th of a second Flyback and Tag Heuer’s Mikrotimer chronograph
For decades, Zenith has been the last bastion, in a sense, of the high-frequency movement. Ever since its launch in 1969, Zenith’s classic El Primero movement, one of the world’s first self-winding chronographs, has been a classic. It has powered several brands including Rolex, Movado, Concord and Panerai. However, while its movements continued to be sought after, the brand itself had begun to lose its sheen. Then in 2009, Jean-Frederic Dufour took over as chief executive and began a staggering turnaround.
In January 2011, Dufour was awarded the watch industry’s Man Of The Year prize for 2011 by a panel of journalists. The award was given for the “clarity with which the new CEO has restored the brand’s lustre and pride of place in the watchmaking world”. Much of this clarity has come in the way that Dufour has trimmed Zenith’s product range to focus on the brand’s strengths and heritage. This year, Zenith’s booth was covered, both inside and outside, with hundreds of certificates the brand has won over the years for its timepieces and technology. But the central attraction was a collection of watches that, according to Dufour, is 99% overhauled from the watchmaker’s collection of two years ago.
All of Zenith’s heritage and skill came together in this year’s flagship model, the El Primero Stratos Flyback Chronograph. The watch combines a classic high-frequency El Primero movement with a flyback action and a chunky, sporty bezel in steel or ceramic. There is also an interesting reiteration of the wildly popular Striking 10th model, which was launched last year. This limited edition Stratos Flyback Striking 10th piece combines the chunky bezel with a chronograph that is accurate to 1-10th of a second.
“High-frequency is in our DNA,” Dufour told Mint at BaselWorld. “Now some brands have started to speak about it. But it has always been part of everything we do. It is in the way we make our watches, it is in the way we do our research. And it is also an investment in the future of watchmaking.”
The other two models this year that boasted high-frequency movements both came from TAG Heuer, a brand increasingly focused on innovating with materials and movements. Earlier this year, the brand unveiled the Carrera Mikrograph 1/100th Chronograph in Geneva. This timepiece combines two balance wheels: one that vibrates at 4Hz to power the time-keeping function, and another at an astounding 50Hz (360,000 times an hour) to power a chronograph accurate and readable to 1-100th of a second. And all this was housed inside a remarkably minimal, uncluttered dial. In fact, unless someone looks at it very closely, it is hard to say that such a brutal beast beats inside the case. The piece has a 42-hour power reserve for the time-keeping module and a 90-minute power reserve for the chronograph.
But at Basel, TAG Heuer went one better with the high-voltage launch of the Mikrotimer Flying 1000 concept chronograph. This piece, that garnered a standing ovation from a packed press conference, has a chronograph that measures and displays time with 1-1000th of a second accuracy. This is so accurate, in fact, that no human being would be able to push the button accurately enough to time anything accurately. Much like the Mikrograph, the Mikrotimer has two balance springs with a 42-hour power reserve for the regular time-keeping function, and a 150-second power reserve for the ultra high-speed chronograph, a module that vibrates at an astonishing 3.6 million times per hour. The movement is so complex that this timepiece alone required 12 pending patents to realize.
However, unlike the Mikrograph, the Mirkotimer is still perhaps years away from being available in the market. Still TAG Heuer chief executive Jean-Christophe Babin was confident at the press conference, where a prototype was displayed, that the watch could be available for sale in limited numbers within the next three years or so.
All three time-pieces are testimony to the fact that high-frequency movements continue to inspire brands and captivate customers. And with the luxury watch business emerging rapidly out of the economic slump, they could usher in a new generation of watches that tick just that little bit faster.
Dufour welcomes the competition: “There is a market that understands high-frequency. And it growing.”